Posts Tagged 'expatify'



First-World Problems in the Second World

1. The landlords of the four-story house I rent have been doing repairs. For ten days straight.

They’re putting in AC and new light fixtures; they’re painting and putting a metal grating on the front fence that will in no way change how easy it would be to hop the fence.

As such, there have been men milling around my house for ten straight days. They arrive on a fleet of motorbikes at 8am and they sometimes don’t leave until 6pm. They aren’t particularly careful—they bash into Nick’s motorbike, they knock Jacob’s bedroom door off the hinges, they splatter paint and it drips down the gap in the stairs, on to the kitchen counter.

When I point this out to them, they clean it. With the sponge I use to wash dishes.

2. My landlord comes every day to supervise them. He wanders around shirtless, a cigarette dangling from between his fingers. I don’t like the way smoke smells in a house and by my Western estimations, as long as I’m paying him money, I should be able to ask him not to smoke in my house.

I don’t bother to point this out. Mostly because I only speak ten words of the language native to the country I’ve moved to.

3. On Friday the 13th, it is 95 degrees. The heat index puts the “feels like” temperature at 112. The AC in the classroom where I teach (for $24/hour, with no relevant qualifications) is feeble and wheezy. I feel nauseous.

4. I’m on the heaviest day of my period. The one box of “super” tampons I found were not in fact super, at least not by Western menstruation standards. This means that during the five minute break between classes, I have to run downstairs (in the heat) to use the one bathroom with toilet paper and soap.

While I’m on the pot, watching the mosquitoes twitch, I realize there isn’t a waste basket. I resolve to wrap my used tampon in a wad of toilet paper and carry it in my fist, to be deposited in the first waste basket I see.

5. My moto driver wants an extra dollar.

6. Searching for an address in the heat.

Since I never had vision insurance in the States, I rarely went to the eye doctor; when I did go, it’d always be over $300. As such, my toric contacts are now four years old. They’re filmy and make my eyes burn; I’ve been wearing my glasses instead and the prescription on those are even older.

I discover I can get a free eye exam at a reputable optometrist and I go, visions of clear vision dancing in my head.

7. During my free eye exam, I discover that toric lenses are not available in Vietnam. “Can I order them?” “No.” “Do you know where I can them?” “Yes.” “Where?” “Yes.”

I leave the clinic, squinting through my glasses.

8. I come home. The workmen have left and there’s a cleaner now. She’s thorough but zealous—she’s rearranged my bedroom, cut down the mosquito net and thrown away a rickety old table that I was too cheap to replace. I have to rehang the mosquito net before I can take my afternoon nap.

9. I cannot nap well.

10. I wake up and a big fucking storm has blown in. Everything is black and howling, and it feels like the world is pressing in against the windows. Finally it bursts and the thundering starts, a stampede of rain.

I notice water dripping down the stairs. I follow it up to the second floor, then the third floor. The stairs are slick and I slip on my way to the fourth floor. There I see the terrace has flooded and the water seeps in, underneath the door and into a filmy pool. I watch it drip drip all the way down to the first floor—into the kitchen, where the paint splotches are.

11. The rains dies down and I decide to drag myself out to a meeting. Because I am cranky and menstrual and obviously NOT WINNING at Vietnam today.

In the thirty minutes of torrential downpour, the alley has flooded. I wade through murky that laps against my shins, bits of garbage and food floating past. My flip-flop falls off and I have to reach in the water to retrieve it.

A morbid compulsion drives me to sniff my fingers. They do not smell nice.

12. Come home two hours later, legs splattered with bits of mud and belly full of homemade chocolate cake. Take a lukewarm shower and dry off. Apply my French moisturizer (it’s a toner not a cream, thank you), put the bottle back on the shiny new shelf the workmen installed that morning.

Notice that my contact lenses case is missing.

Search around for a bit, text the landlady, get a snarky text in broken English back.

13. Get on Google to figure out if one can get toric lenses in Bangkok, where I’ve already booked a trip for next month. Discover that one can. Also discover that it will be expensive, only be marginally less than in the States. The difference being, of course, that in Vietnam I’m actually earning enough to have disposable income for extravagant indulgences like medical care for non-life-threatening problems.

And flights to Thailand.

And workmen that lose contact lenses.

And landlords that repair your house.

Try to comfort myself with these thoughts as I climb under the mosquito net, the AC droning and the fan cutting the air into thick mold-smelling slices.

Kinda Like Dating: The Xe Om Saga

Number one most aggravating, expensive and demoralizing part of my move to Hanoi: transit. This city is big and confusing and filled with about 10 million motorbikes (no, really) and even without the heat it’d be pretty damn unwalkable. So you take xe oms, motorbikes—the same as you do in Phnom Penh except here you’ve got a helmet and the driver can read your destination’s address. So you’d think it’d be a better jam, but. It. Is. Goddamn. Expensive.

I guess most people don’t arrive in a city and immediately start looking for jobs and going on interviews. Most people don’t get three jobs in two weeks and have to venture out to these far-reaching, newly constructed parts of the city where the schools are located, twenty minutes away from center (not during rush hour)—venture out for evening classes and early morning classes, before they know their way around or where exactly they’re going, when the city still looks like miles and miles of exhaust-laced sameness.

So. My first few weeks involved a lot of getting lost, getting stranded and getting extremely fucking annoyed. Mostly at myself, since I couldn’t communicate, couldn’t haggle, didn’t know how to ask the driver to come back when the class was over. So I’d come out of a dark building at 9pm in a desolate part of town, look around and realize there was fucking no xe om to take me back to civilization. I’d walk for ten minutes and the xe om I’d finally find would take one look at my ill-fitting clothes and desperate, lost expression and know he could take for whatever he wanted. $4 back to center? I wasn’t exactly in a position to negotiate. Well played, xe om, well played.

I tried to keep it in perspective—I was brand new here and didn’t know shit, so I kinda deserved to get ripped off. You have to earn not getting ripped off, is how I feel, and that takes time. So until then I was just gonna have to bleed money. Like $8-10 a day. And arrive to new jobs thirty minutes late because the xe om didn’t know his way and ran out of gas and yelled at me when I couldn’t tell him which direction to go.

Exactly.

(It took about a week to figure out that, as utterly terrifying as the idea of driving a motorbike is, it’s not at all viable to live in Hanoi and not have your own transport. So I found someone to give me lessons—not an easy feat considering I didn’t know how to ride a bicycle and had never balanced on two wheels. That’s a whole nuther story for another day, but for now I’ll just say that there’s bruises up and down my shins and I’m probably a good month away from being mobile.)

So the most immediate solution was to get a regular xe om. I was in the market, evaluating each ride for safety, courtesy and relative knowledge of the city. It was kind of like dating, except that when I found a potential candidate I didn’t know how to actually communicate the fact that he was a potential candidate. I would look at him longingly, try to pantomime a request before letting my arms dangle back to my sides and walking off, demoralized again. (Not so different from actual dating, really.)

I was spending a couple weeks in a guesthouse in the Old Quarter while I waited for a room in a house to open. The guy who ran the convenience shop across the alley (really just rack of water and cigarettes in his living room) was giving me overpriced, jerky rides to work and back, but I was stoked to just have a regular dude and not have worry about getting stranded. (Think of this as the Substandard Convenience Fuck—I did.) But one day he decided he wanted SEVEN FUCKING DOLLARS to take me work, so I ventured down the alley to find another xe om.

There was a cluster of them perched on their bikes on the corner. I sighed and did the usual approach, pointed to the address I’d written down on my falling-apart notebook. Negotiated a price, strapped on my helmet, hopped on. It wasn’t till we were halfway there that he started talking to me. In really good English.

He picked me up after class, took me back to the guesthouse. He gave me his number and told me to SMS him when I needed another ride. I did and man, he was pretty good. Safe driver, knew the city, open to negotiation. It was kinda perfect. Too perfect. Just like dating, I was hesitant, suspicious of Mr. Perfect Xe Om who could speak and read English, and was happy to tote my monolingual, newly arrived ass all over the city when he could probably make more hustling tourists in the Old Quarter. Don’t get attached, I told myself. This can’t last.

So when I moved into my new house last week and left the Old Quarter, I figured, you know, that was the end of a good thing. My sweet summer xe om fling. “Thanks for the rides,” I told him. “But I’m moving up to West Lake.”

“You need ride, you SMS me,” he told me.

“But isn’t that kinda far for you?”

He shook his head. “You SMS me,” he said again. It was more of a command than anything else.

Well, it’s been a week now and this fool is still showing up. He even texts me at night to ask when I need him the next day. It still isn’t cheap, but given the circumstance, it’s the best I could ask for.

I was already pretty stoked when he came to pick me last night. It was late and I was in my stupid work slacks that make me look pregnant and it had been a long day of classes and I was hungry and ready to go home. Like that.

I came out of the building and saw him sitting on his bike. He was nodding his head, and I heard a faint, distorted blare of music.

He waved and circled over. The sound became louder. And recognizable: “Hotel California.”

I laugh burst from my belly.

“You like?” he asked. He held up the thin cellphone from which the song was blasting. “I just buy.”

I shook my head and chuckled. “I love it.”

I got on and we headed back. It had just rained and the air the fresh, the road still pocked with puddles that reflected the lights. He played the song over and over—we must have listened to it four fucking times—and he sang along to his favorite lines (“pretty pretty boys / that she calls friends”). I laughed and felt the breeze on my face and thought, you know, I’ve found a good one.

Though really, he found me.

Earning It in the Old Quarter

It was the heat that did it. 115 with humidity and no AC at my friend’s house, where I’d been sleeping on that stained futon for two weeks. Belongings scattered in three bags, towel strung along the back of a shelf in an attempt to have it dry. It never did.

So when I came back from lunch at 2pm last Wednesday and the power was out, not even a fan to cut the thick air into more manageable, breathable pieces, I knew it was time to cut out. I mashed my toiletries and dirty laundry into my bags, dripping sweat and shaking, and staggered down the alley to find a taxi.

I was off to be a tourist.

Obligatory flooded street photo

I’ve never been a tourist in Hanoi. Not in the proper sense. Thanks to my friend, I’ve always had somewhere to stay, someone tote me around on the back of their motorbike and take me to the good street stalls and even order for me. It’s been phenomenal, especially considering what a full-on assault-on-the-senses this city is. I’ve been massively culture shocked all three times I’ve arrived here, in a way that no other city had culture-shocked me, and if I didn’t have a good old friend to show me around I’d probably not have left my hotel room.

But after two weeks I was still kind of helpless. I couldn’t drive a motorbike (more on that later), didn’t know my way around, couldn’t tell you the names of any of the amazing food I’d eaten. I had, however, gotten three jobs and was feeling not exactly flush but at least less crushingly broke. I was ready to venture out on my own.

“Ugh, you’re going to the Old Quarter?” another friend said. “You couldn’t pay me.”

It’s true that it’s loud. It’s true that the traffic is mad and the alleys are narrow and the air is choked thick with pollution. It’s true that it’s mashed with backpackers with dirty hair and Vang Vieng tanks, who walk too slow and talk too loud. It’s true that the vendors overcharge you.

But.

But it’s kinda nice to be a tourist. To walk around—actually walk!—and get a sense for that layout of things. To find food stalls on my own, to haggle in my cursory Vietnamese, to be forced to fend for myself. It’s harder and more expensive, but I feel more like it’s mine, like I’ve earned it.

I also like sitting in the AC in my underpants.

Fish soup, down the alley from me

But true to form, I’m the shits at being a tourist. It’s been a week in the Old Quarter and I haven’t gone to a museum, haven’t seen a cultural attraction, have been half-assed about taking photos. I have eaten a lot of street food and sat at a lot of cafes. I’ve gotten up at 6 to jog around the lake, past the women doing that Chinese red-fan dance and the teenagers eating ice-cream (yes, at 6am). I’ve read a book and watch a couple movies and written two first drafts.

So I’ve had a pretty good week.

“I’ll be ready to leave in another week,” I told my Old-Quarter-hating friend, “when it’s time to move into my new place. But for now,” I shrugged at the tourists and the vendors and the xeom drivers perched on the corners, ‘I’m okay with it.”

It’s Too Easy (Cheating in Hanoi)

At the altar,
old ash curled
like fingernails.
A funeral pours into the street.
Bouquets of lychee,
electrical wires
like black nests,
the way his old Russian motorbike
coughs down the alley—
it’s too easy
to write poetry
in this city
where nothing else is easy,
where the air is thick
and my eyes sting,
where fishermen rise from arsenic waters,
gleaming as buffalo
while I drink coffee.

See?
It feels like cheating,
stealing
images the city wrote
when it wasn’t even trying
(when all I ever do is try)—

when it was looking the way other,
when it was waiting for the light to change,

revving its engine or else
leaning a head
against a back:
arms wrapped
eyes closed

Writing poetry in its sleep

Evening In Front of Uncle Ho

Bubbles blowing and bats swooping. Children giggling. The squeak-squeak of those little shoes they put on toddlers.

It’s nighttime in front of the Mausoleum, summer in Hanoi. The last time I was here it was winter and the city had a strict bedtime—10pm and like a light switched off: wide streets vacant, narrow alleys thick with shadows that slunk from the sharp cast of headlights.

But it’s different now. Or I’m different now. The season has changed and the city is full, parks blooming and bursting with people. Kinda like dusk in Phnom Penh, the “Golden Hour” I always called it—sky all pink and breezy, everything made even more excruciatingly beautiful by the fact that it’d all pass so goddamn fast, like sand through your fingers (have you ever held sand through your fingers like that? I hadn’t till then).

The stadium lights beat down and the bats swoop behind.

I’d wanted a walk. I needed a walk. It had been my first real shit day in Hanoi, following what had been my first real great day in Hanoi. It was the xeoms that had done it—stranded and lost and giving myself heat stroke, showing the driver the wrong address, him screaming at me when I realized my mistake, my eyes welling up, men at the cafe staring placidly, legs crossed and coffee. He had me. He charged me $6. I paid it.

I never did find the school I had the interview at. I felt about as broken and lost as I am in this city, in my life right now. My friend took me out for dinner; I ate too much; he said, “Remember that Bukowski poem: ‘it’s not the large things that / send a man to the / madhouse… but a shoelace that snaps / with no time left.'”

Exactly. Another chopstick full of noodles please.

So I needed a walk, something to clear my mind. He lives on this little peninsula and if you follow it down, you go on an isthmus between two lakes. The couples sit on benches and the lights stream pass and the old men sleep on their motorbikes. Get to the end, there’s women doing line dancing; they’re dancing in pairs and then they line up and “Macarena” comes blaring on the speakers and they start to dance with no irony whatsoever. There’s a boy up front, away from everyone else—socks pulled high and shirt tucked into his shorts—and he’s dancing to his own rhythm, wild and unrestrained and tragic. I can tell before I see his face that he’s got Down Syndrome.

He dances alone.

I keep going, cross another park, another roaring street and I come to the wide open green in front of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. They’ve got those big white stadium lights on and it washes everything in brightness, seems to make each blade of grass gleam. In the cement stretch in front of the building—block-shaped and austerely uplit in red—families are strolling, powerwalking, children chasing bubbles while a thousand hand-held fan whir.

There’s guards milling around, uniforms and little hats. It feels almost Italian the way the people are out. There’s a breeze and it feels like luxury across my arms.

I realize I haven’t seen a single prostitute during my stroll. At least a blatant one. I’ve got a head full of Phnom Penh and half my heart too, and all I keep thinking is—“Grass: you’d never see that in Phnom Penh”; “Look how nicely cobbled the pathway is”; “It’s after 9pm and normal people are out, families and kids.”

I like this, I think. This feels good.

I watch a mother blow bubbles for her toddler son; he squeals, waves his fat arms and chases them. A girl snuggles under the crook of her boyfriend’s arm. Two girls sit on the walkway between patches of grass, giggle in close towards each other. “Hello!” a boy exclaims at me. “Hello!” I exclaim back, just as jubilantly.

Had all this really been waiting? Really been going on—hidden under the cover of winter and of my own distance?

It had.

Just then the stadium lights start to snap shut—one, two, three—and a dimness is cast over the grass. It’s suddenly quiet, still, dark, backlit but the thousand motorbikes that snake around on the street beyond the grass. It feels further away than it is.

The guards start to blow their whistles. People gather their things, make their way towards the street.

I check my phone: 9:30.

I smile. So the city does still have a bedtime.

The Haze and the Lake and My Life in Three Bags

The haze hangs low over West Lake. Not big and billowy like fog, but flat like a pancake. Like the thin blanket I’ve been sleeping under, a futon on the floor of my friend’s living room. My life in three bags, wedged into the corner beside me, slowing spilling over onto the floor. This again.

It’s not so bad, really. The polluted mist, I mean. At least for now, it feels better than the suffocating heat of Phnom Penh, that felt like a hand over your mouth, or the way the too-strong sun stung my too-Irish skin.

My friend lives on a little peninsula along the lake. Down one of those winding alleys that remind me of the inside of an Italian town. Though I couldn’t really tell you why. It’s a mellow little enclave; there’s cafes along the water, chairs set up under umbrellas and the shopkeepers walk the coffee over to you, across the street on metal trays. You can sit there at dusk, watch the bats swoop through the mosquito-ridden sky, watch the lights click on, feel something resembling a breeze cut through that haze.

I’ve been in a fog since I got here, four days ago, 9pm in a taxi with a broken meter. I’d handed the driver the address, carefully printed with its strange slanting accents. He looked at it and nodded. He could read it and he knew roughly where it was. I wanted to cry.

The fog I’ve been in is not a big and billowy one, like home, the way the clouds will pour over the hills behind my brother’s house—how I’d watch it through the kitchen window and it’d look like a living thing. It’s been more like the haze that hangs over Hanoi, asthmatic and dense and twitching with mosquitoes. It’s a cheap metaphor, but the best I can offer right now.

I guess you could say I’m shell-shocked. It wasn’t so long a journey here—a six-hour bus to Saigon and a two-hour flight—and there’s no time difference, but I feel like I’ve traveled across the world. Been sleeping like a log, spending long hours online searching for jobs and sending CVs, drinking coffee that doesn’t seem to cut through the mental haze at all. Taking some walks, but mostly sitting still. Not writing, not really reading. Mostly just staring a FB feed.

I have no idea what to say about my time in Cambodia or why I knew I had to leave. I don’t think it’ll make sense for a long time, if ever.

My first morning in Hanoi, Angelo caught me on Skype and we chatted. He told me about his trip to Detroit while I looked at his Instagram photos of bombed-out buildings and roller tags and the inside of art studios, abandoned convenience stores and houses with a thousand haphazard numbers painted on the outside. Dead grass and sunsets and his beautiful girlfriend, in high tops and cut-offs, skin burning with youth.

“How’s Hanoi?”

“I dunno, I just got in last night.”

I told him it was hard, that I think the transition will be harder than I’d expected. But that ultimately, I’ll be happier.

“I mean, it’s sad. I left Phnom Penh under sad circumstances.”

“How so?”

“I wasn’t really ready to leave. I didn’t hate it, you know; there was still shit I loved.”

“Then why’d you go?”

A pause. “Self-preservation,” I answered without thinking. I considered it a moment; I looked out at my bags, my life, crammed into a corner. I nodded to myself. “I realized I had to get out. And I can’t totally tell you why.”

“Man,” he said.

We trailed off into silence.

Decision to Leave Cambodia, Part II: Things Fall Apart

So late April and I went going great guns. I scoured job forums and posted an ad for private English tutoring. I sent out my CV to a couple NGOs I’d researched who did legit work on issues I was excited about (there’s less of those than you’d think). I wrote a couple new pitches to those local magazines that had never gotten back to me, and I started Khmer lessons. I resolved to go out more, be more social. I talked to all my friends, networking and brainstorming ideas of how to build a more sustainable life here.

And at first it seemed to go great. I got several responses to my ad for private tutoring. A PR rep from a new legal advising firm contacted me—would I be interested in a contract editing gig? Some friends had good ideas of places to volunteer at, ways my skills could be useful here. I met a guy who was in town, scoping out the scene to see if he wanted to live here; he was sober and funny and cool and I developed my first crush in months.

Maybe all it took was throwing myself in.

It was a long dusty motorbike ride through rush-hour traffic to the home of the young boy I’d be tutoring. His family lived in a villa out towards the airport. I’d met them for coffee at a swank hotel to discuss my rates and qualifications the Saturday before. The dad had sent me a text later that night, saying that he was so glad they’d found me. And that my appearance was “much more than he expected.”

I didn’t know what to make of that. Folks here a lot more open about commenting on your body; I was willing to chalk the comment up to cultural differences and the lack of intonation texts provide. Still, I filed it away.

The boy was lovely. He was smart; his reading comprehension was far beyond most of the high school students I’d taught. He liked to read, so tutoring him would be easy and fun. The pay was decent. I felt good about it.

But the text messages from the dad kept coming. Emails too. Wonky messages that made me increasingly uncomfortable—what to my Western mind felt like blurry boundaries. Then he asked me out for a drink.

I ran the situation by a bunch of friends who’ve been here longer than me and know the culture better. They all agreed that it was a little off. It was probably nothing to be too concerned about, they told me, but if it was making me uncomfortable, better to bail.

I decided to pay it safe. Because I’m a girl living alone in a foreign country, so if there’s ever a time to play it safe, this would be it. I made up a reason about scheduling conflicts and quit.

The editorial position seemed more promising. I met the PR director in the lobby cafe of a gleaming new skyrise. They had a two-month contract they needed to fill while their permanent editor was on summer sabbatical. I came back the next week for a test edit and passed. The gig was high-paying and part-time; it would give me two months to save a little and plot my next move. It was also in an air-conditioned office building, with a Western bathroom and a water cooler, and for the first time in my life, these things seemed appealing. I’d never worked in a office; in fact, I realized, no one in my family had ever worked an office job. I was gonna be trailblazer. It was kinda funny. And kinda perfect.

They sent over a contact the next week. But wait—could I start a week earlier? And could I be full-time instead of part-time? Well, I’d have to see if I could leave my current job at the preschool a week earlier, I said. Great, they said, let us know and we’ll send the revised contract over.

So I put my notice in. It was a little bittersweet—I’d really come to love those little rascals. (Ok, some of those little rascals.) But it felt good, to be moving on to bigger and better things. To be moving towards a successful Phnom Penh life. Things were coming together.

I wrote the company and let them know I was good to start May 21. Then I waited. And waited. After four days, I wrote an email to check on the status of the contract. “We’ve been reevaluating our media team and don’t know whether the position will be full-time, part-time or restructured. We advise you don’t put your notice in until you have a contract in hand.”

Um, thanks.

In the meantime, shit got weird at the school. I could have tried to stay on, stretch out my time while I waited to hear back from about the contract gig, but again—I’m a woman alone in a foreign country, where I don’t know the rules, where I don’t know what’s safe or not.

Things were falling apart.

A week passed and the only word I got from the company was “We’ll understand if you take another position in the interim.” None of the volunteer gigs had gotten back to me; I hadn’t heard back from any of the pitches I’d sent out. That guy I had the crush on left the country. The lease was up on my apartment and I was down to my last $500.

Meanwhile, summer schools were hiring in Hanoi. They started at $20/hour—double what the schools here pay and with a comparable cost of living. My friend had a mattress I could crash on. I had just enough money for a visa and a flight. I’d liked Hanoi when I was there last year—the food and the coffee and the hipsters. It was an exciting place, with better roads and less corruption. There was more going on there in terms of art and culture. It was “Detroit” and Cambodia was “Buffalo.” And I could go to a reliable doctor if I got sick.

I didn’t make the decision so much as the decision made me.

Decision to Leave Cambodia, Part I: Chinks In The Plan

Yeah, you read that right.

It started a month ago, when I got back from Malaysia. You might have noticed that posts took a detour to Bummersville. It was my first time out of Cambodia since I got here and it gave me the space to reset, to take a look at how my months here had been.

Not great.

Not terrible either though. I wasn’t miserable, I was plopping along happily enough in my day-to-day. I had a job I didn’t hate, that paid me just enough to survive. I had friends and routines I liked; I was going to kickboxing classes. I’d finally moved out of that phase of gnawing loneliness I suppose all expats initially go through. Every week I’d figured out something else, some new little trick to make me life easier—I can get a jug of water delivered for $1!—and that felt good. Things were, you know, okay.

But I hadn’t come here for things to be “okay.” I’d come with Big Fucking Plans, Big Fucking Expectations. (And you know what they say about expectations.) I was gonna immerse myself, I was gonna support myself freelancing, I was gonna write a book. On a topic no one discusses. Without any connections or financial backing or relevant training, other than my own life experience.

I got back to Phnom Penh last month and observed my days: wake up early; teach for 4 hours; have lunch; come home and nap through the worst of the heat; putter; avoid direct sunlight, walking around or anything that might cause heat stroke; try not to spend money; work out at dusk or meet a friend for dinner; come home and read or write or watch DVDs. Not exactly what you’d call cultural immersion, eh?

The obvious answer was that I had failed. If I’d just tried hard enough, if I just hurled myself into the mix, everything would be going according to that plan in my head. I’d be making good money, or if I wasn’t, I’d be doing something so absurdly fulfilling it wouldn’t matter. I looked at other friends for whom life here seemed to be flowing—getting articles published, dating, learning Khmer, having local friends—and I judged myself harshly. Obviously, I was at fault.

“I haven’t tried very hard,” I admitted to a friend.

“No,” she answered, with the unsentimental honesty I’ve come to value her for. “But there’s gotta be a reason for that.”

I wasn’t willing to look at that yet.

So.

So I’d give it a month, I said. I was down to the last $500 I’d come over here with. My friend in Hanoi told me that the summer schools there would be hiring in early June and getting a quick three-month gig would be easy. I decided I’d throw all my chips in, to give Phnom Penh my all—I was gonna network and hustle and give it my best shot to establish a more sustainable and fulfilling lifestyle here. Maybe all it would take was going balls-out.

But if a month passed and I was still in the same position, I had an out.

Lunch In The Bubble

“Ugh, it’s rubbish.”

C took a sip of her miso soup. She looked down with a particular anguished embarrassment I’ve come to recognize. I know it because I share it.

The question was, “How is your Khmer?” And the answer is what I expected. Not because C’s only been here a few months—which is of course only a few months less than me. Not because she’s busy working split classes that send her scurrying all over town 6 days a week. And not even because we were eating Japanese food in a restaurant playing American blues, next to a Vietnamese-run nail salon in the expat part of town.

I expected her answer because it was the same one a hefty portion of the expats in Phnom Penh would give—what I’m tempted to say is half the expats here, though I have nothing to base that on. There’s a certain kind of guilt with which one admits their abhorrent level of Khmer language skills—“I really need to start lessons again” or “God, I’ve just been so busy.” They say it in the same shameful tone people in the States do when admitting they haven’t gone to the gym in 6 months.

I also expected her answer because it was mine.

C put her soup back down. “I don’t know what it is,” she confessed. “I just can’t be bothered. I feel bad about it. And it’s strange, because when I was living in Japan I was desperate to communicate. I studied all the time; I couldn’t stand feeling so isolated. But here,” she looked out across the open-air patio to the rubbled street, “I don’t mind the isolation so much.”

I nodded slowly, stared down at the teriyaki balanced between my chopsticks. “Yeah, that’s kinda a thing here.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, so many of the expats here just don’t bother to speak the language. Some of it’s laziness for sure, or busyness. Everyone speaks enough English in Phnom Penh so you don’t have to learn Khmer. But I dunno,” I paused, chewing contemplatively. “I’m starting to think there’s more to it.”

“Like what?”

“I think it’s a symptom. You notice how most of us live in these little bubbles, these enclaves where we don’t really interact with Cambodian culture at all?” C nodded. “There’s a dude, he wrote a whole book about it.”

“Is it any good?”

I shrugged. “I dunno, it’s $12.” I paused. “But look at me. I came here explicitly to write about Cambodia and Cambodians. I came here to immerse myself. I had earnest, heartfelt intentions to learn as much Khmer as I could. Well, it’s been six months and look at me.” I raised my arms to offer C a look at me—in a pencil skirt from the States, a blouse from Malaysia, eating lunch at an expat restaurant. “I can count to ten and give a tuk-tuk driver directions. That’s it.”

“So what is it?” C looked at me out of the corner of her eye.

“Well, for me, I think it’s a kind of unconscious resistance to being fully immersed here. I think I want to be, I say I want to be, but at a fundamental level I don’t.” I shoveled some rice in my mouth so I wouldn’t have to feel the words linger. It was first time I’d admitted it, the first time I’d said it out loud.

“Why?” C asked.

My mouth answered before my brain could come up with a good excuse. “Because I’m scared. I’m scared shitless of being immersed here, and I can’t totally tell you why.”

I paused, trying to tease out the knot of thoughts I hadn’t realized I’d been carrying until that moment. “Sometimes I feel like there’s this whole undercurrent here, like there’s this dark fucking shit going on just beneath the surface. And I’m terrified of getting swept into it.”

C nodded. She hadn’t been in Cambodia long, but she’s been kicking around Asia long enough to know that something’s different about Cambodia.

I looked out at the road, watched a vendor pass. “And you get a lot of bullshit sensationalism, bravo stuff, you know—‘I live in Cambodia, it’s so edgy and dangerous.'” I rolled my eyes. “I don’t mean that. I mean that there’s a certain darkness here and I feel like I spend a lot of my time insulating myself against it. Holing up in my apartment watching DVDs.” C laughed and nodded.

I leaned forward, gripping the base of my tea cup and staring into it, so I wouldn’t have to look at her eyes. “And you know, I see the expats here who are fully immersed and they scare me even more. I mean, there’s lovely honorable exceptions, and I’m friends with some of those exceptions—but most of the folks I see that speak Khmer and have been here a long time,” I shook my head, “I don’t want what they have.”

We were quiet for a minute. I considered what I’d just said, wondered if it was true. I decided it probably was.

“This is the only country I’ve been in where I get insomnia,” I told C.

“Me too,” she said.

We sat on the terrace, the fan cutting the dog’s-breath air into panting little pieces. Bessie Smith played in the background while outside, Cambodia passed us by.

Cambodia Is To Buffalo As Vietnam Is To Detroit: The World According to Angelo

Buffalo, cultural hotbed

Unexpected thing #1356 travel has afforded me: a kid I met on a dirt road in bumfuck Italy a year and a half ago has become one of my closest friends, and one of the people I keep in touch with the most.

Things I love about Angelo:

1. He’s New York as shit.

2. He keeps me in the loop. As per the previous post, I’m culturally out on a fucking island here in Cambodia, so I can listen to him prattle on about contemporary art and underground shows and for an hour I can pretend I’m not literally on the other side of the planet from all that.

3. Listening to all his first-year-out-of-college stresses and struggles puts my own shit in perspective.

4. I get him. I met Angelo as he was breathlessly bicycling away from what he called wildlife, what anyone else would call a herd of grazing sheep. Which I totally understood—being an uber-urban kid from a big-ass city, an expert in riding public transit, finding hole-in-the-hall restaurants and living insanely cheaply in insanely expensive places. But knowing fuck all about the rest of the world. That’s what I was, before I started traveling.

5. He never fucking sleeps. That the little green dot on Facebook is always lit, so I can call whenever.

As such, Angelo’s right up there with my parents and my sponsor when it comes to Skype-age. Take last Saturday afternoon: get a message from him to call anytime before 2am Eastern, cause that’s when he’s going out for the night.

Who goes out at 2am? my old-ass asks.

Twenty-two year old New Yorkers, that’s who.

So I call and he of course picks up, just as bright and chipper as always: “Yo yo yo! I’m maaaaad hungry; we’re about to go on a walk, get some dollar pizza.”

So Angelo takes me with him, the horns and hustle of Manhattan coming through my laptop, echoing around the dingy walls of my apartment, making it feel smaller, shabbier, more barren.

“How’s the weather out there?” I ask.

“Aw man, it’s been fucking beautiful,” he says. “I mean, I feel bad even telling you.”

I laugh. I start telling Angelo about what’s been going on with me since we last talked, which basically amounts to a recounting of my last post, but in a whinier tone.

“Man, I really just, you know,” he pauses. “I feel bad for you, yo. Like, I know you’re out there doing your thing, that you went for a reason and all that. And I’m all proud of you—I tell people about you all the time—but I just picture you out there, and, well, I feel bad.” I laugh again. “I mean, shit, I couldn’t do it.”

“Aw, sure you could,” I tell him. “That’s the first thing you learn—how much more adaptable you are than you think.”

“Yeah, well,” I can hear him dragging a cigarette, “maybe it’s just that I wouldn’t wanna do it.”

I sigh. “Yeah, well, that’s fair.”

I hear the clatter of a the pizza place; Angelo orders and it’s loud and then it’s quieter again. “Where are we?” I ask. “On your steps in front St Mark’s Market?”

“Nah, someone was in my spot, yo! I’m having to stand.”

I go on, start telling Angelo about my back-up plan, my ace-up-the-sleeve: going to Hanoi for a few months to bang out some high-paid English teaching. “Yo, yo, do that man,” he says between a mouthful of pizza crust.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Vietnam is like, cool. You’d get mad hipster points.”

I laugh. “I don’t get hipster points for Cambodia?”

“Nah. Obscurity points, but…” Pause, thoughtful chewing. “You know what it’s like? It’s like Vietnam is Detroit. And Cambodia is Buffalo.”

I almost spit out my coffee. “Wait, what?”

“Yeah yeah yeah,” he answers and his voice gets more excited as he breaks it down. “It’s like, people in New York talk about Detroit. There’s shit going on there—art shit and music festivals. People go there. It’s mad hip right now. And people know about Vietnam. We talk about it; we eat pho and read Tao Lin and shit.”

A belly laugh shakes my body.

“But say someone moves to Buffalo. That’s like ‘what the fuck?’ That’s just like, ‘Why? Why would do that to yourself?'” I’m damn near hysterical with that. He laughs too. “It’s just like, you feel kinda bad for em.”

“And Cambodia is Buffalo?” I ask.

“Yeah.”

“But, what if Cambodia starts getting cool?” I extend the analogy: “Like, what if people in New York start talking about Cambodia and eating prahok—”

“What’s that?”

“‘Fish cheese.’ This gross-ass fermented fish paste shit; it’s foul. But what if it becomes hella hip and trendy and I get to say I was into Cambodia before it was cool.”

We both laugh long and hard. “It’s a gamble, though, yo,” he finally says.

He’s right.

“Come on, let’s go back to your place,” I tell him. And he walks me back the four blocks to his apartment, New York City howling through my computer—just like I was there.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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